Who this is for—or when a phone isn't enough
Though many people now rely on their smartphones for turn-by-turn directions, the best GPS devices can still make navigating to your destination easier, thanks to handy features such as built-in databases, displays that show clearly what lane to be in at interchanges and which highway signs to follow, points of interest with TripAdvisor and Foursquare integration, a speed-limit display for the road you're on, a variety of driver and safety alerts, and more natural, landmark-specific voice directions. Although a smartphone can work well for most people for day-to-day navigation, we think stand-alone GPS units can be better in some situations, especially for longer trips. For more on who should get a car GPS, see our full guide.
How we picked and tested
For this update, we tested eight car GPS models. Photos: Rik Paul and Nathan Paul
To get the big picture of this category, we compared the specs and features of all current models. We did a survey of several hundred Wirecutter readers to see what their preferences were. And we looked at customer reviews on Amazon and Best Buy's site to see what the consensus was on specific models and manufacturers.
For our newest update, we got the latest models from the major brands and put them through our thorough hands-on testing, logging hundreds of miles on highways and backroads to check out the latest features and assess their overall ease of use. We looked at how accessible the settings were, and how quickly we could input a destination and get a route. We tinkered with the screen settings, explored the various route-preference options, and gauged how quickly we could make the device do our bidding. For more on how we tested, see our full guide.
The Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S provides the best blend of usability, features, and value of any of the models we looked at. Photos: Rik Paul and Nathan Paul
All of the devices we looked at performed very well during our testing, but none could match the Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S in its combination of features, value, and usability. It retains Garmin's great user interface and broad feature set, which together have kept the company's models among our picks and historically at the top of Consumer Reports ratings (subscription required). The Drive 51 LMT-S is the least expensive Garmin model we tested, but it has a clear 5-inch screen and all of the essential features we expect in a good GPS device, without the extras that many people can do without. It's effortless to use and instantaneous in its responsiveness.
In addition to providing free lifetime map updates and traffic alerts, the Drive 51 LMT-S, like all of the models in Garmin's Drive series, comes with a variety of key features. They include integration of millions of preloaded Foursquare-sourced destinations to supplement its own points-of-interest (POI) database; its Real Directions feature, which generates more-natural voice instructions (for instance, "turn right at the movie theater"); and compatibility with Garmin's BC 30 wireless backup camera and babyCam. Like all current Garmin GPS devices, it also provides a suite of safety and driver alerts.
The Garmin Drive 51 LMT-S has a few quirks. For one thing, the TFT screen—which the unit has instead of a capacitive touchscreen similar to what you find on a smartphone—lacks real sensitivity, so you have to get used to tapping with a bit of oomph, and scrolling with your finger through menus is far from smooth. We often accidentally activated whatever menu option our finger landed on rather than successfully scrolling. Fortunately, the unit has big up/down arrows to the left that you can use if you don't like the finger scrolling.
The DriveSmart 51 LMT-S has a multitouch screen with pinch-to-zoom capability. Photos: Rik Paul and Nathan Paul
Our top pick gives you everything you need for easy navigation for under $200. But if you don't mind spending more, you can get what we've found to be some handy extras with the Garmin DriveSmart 51 LMT-S. It offers all the functionality of the Drive 51 LMT-S, along with a nicer display, voice-activated navigation, and the ability to easily update the device's maps and software through its built-in Wi-Fi support. When connected via Bluetooth to your smartphone, the DriveSmart 51 LMT-S also lets you conduct hands-free phone calls and receive incoming text messages and calendar reminders, something our top pick can't do. So if you appreciate a little nudge in convenience and your budget allows, skip straight to this model.
The TomTom Go 50 S is a good basic navigator that will get you to your destination. Photos: Rik Paul and Nathan Paul
If you want reliable navigation for considerably less cash, we recommend the TomTom Go 50 S. It's a fully functional, if basic, navigator that has many of the hallmarks of modern devices, including lane guidance, traffic (through a smartphone connection), and free lifetime maps of the US, Canada, and Mexico. The Go 50 S also has the same 5 inches of screen real estate as our top pick, and in many metro areas it will display familiar landmarks in 3D mode so you can more easily orient yourself with the map.
Though it will alert you to safety-camera locations (speed and red lights), the Go 50 S doesn't provide the array of alerts the new Garmin devices do. It's slightly bulkier than the Garmin models, and for us its processor was a bit sluggish in response time when we tapped on the screen. Overall, we didn't find TomTom's interface to be quite as driver-friendly or helpful as Garmin's. But the TomTom Go 50 S will reliably take you where you need to go for less money.
Upgrade for safety features
When you've navigated to an address, the Garmin DriveAssist 51 LMT-S switches to a real-life view of the street with your destination marked. When the pink circle reaches all the way around, you're there. Photos: Rik Paul and Nathan Paul
With more drivers choosing to add a dash cam to their car, we're now starting to see more combo devices that serve both as a GPS device and as a dash cam. For our latest update, we tested two such models: the Garmin DriveAssist 51 LMT-S and the Magellan RoadMate 6630T-LM. Of those two, we prefer the Garmin, mostly for the same reasons we've described for the company's other models, namely the more refined interface and better overall navigational experience. Both models also provide a couple of camera-based safety features—forward-collision and lane-departure warnings—that give you an extra hedge against distracted or drowsy driving without your having to install additional sensors. And with these features, too, we prefer Garmin's execution over Magellan's.
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